It’s been nine years since former President Barack Obama proclaimed September as National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, calling attention to what remains the leading cause of death for children under the age of 14.

For the team at McAllen’s Vannie Cook Clinic, who are currently celebrating their 20th anniversary, raising awareness can be more of a long-term endeavor.

“We definitely try to bring awareness year-round but, of course, September is very special because it’s Childhood Cancer Awareness month,” Director of Philanthropy and Public Relations at Vannie Cook Clinic Victoria Guerra said. “Specifically, during this month, I mean COVID has made things a little difficult [since] we can’t expose our patients to large crowds.”

Cancer patients are typically immunocompromised, which means they are more susceptible to infection due to several factors, such as the cancer itself, poor nutrition, cancer treatments and other health issues or medications not related to the cancer.

Changes in the patient’s immune system that control their body’s defense systems are what cause the higher risk of infection as some cancers, like most types of leukemia, start in immune system blood cells.

“During a pandemic or not, children with cancer have a suppressed immune system so we’ve always had to be careful, we’ve always had to be cautious, we’ve always had to take extra cleaning measures,” Guerra said. “If anything, it just re-emphasized the importance of why we do the things we do to keep our kids safe.”

Normally the nonprofit organization holds a carnival during childhood cancer awareness month, but due to the current pandemic, the team at Vannie Cook have used different means — such as highlighting patients on the clinic’s social media pages and holding a drive-by parade hosted by Friends for Hope to benefit the kids on active treatment.

The clinic also partnered with community members and other organizations like the Greater Gold Foundation and the Team Walker Pete Foundation to help celebrate the kids.

One patient, 14-year-old Diego Huerta who was diagnosed with T-Cell leukemia in December, is the youngest son of the clinic’s oncology social worker, Yahdira Huerta.

Diego had been complaining of chest pains he would experience after working out and had trouble breathing when lying down.

It was discovered that he had cancer after he was taken to the family doctor in order to rule out a COVID diagnosis, which was originally assumed to be the cause of the issues.

“It was never a question in my mind to take my child anywhere else but here,” Huerta said. “We work here, we have a support system here.

“We feel like we’re in our own home and with our family.”

The team at Vannie Cook includes full-time, board-certified pediatric hematologists and oncologists, chemotherapy-certified registered nurses, a licensed master’s level social worker, specialized laboratory technicians and administrative support.

The nonprofit offers diagnostic, management and treatment services, on-site infusion center for outpatient chemotherapy services, on-site hematology laboratory, psychosocial services, an Arts in Medicine program, access to children’s oncology group clinical trials and other research studies, as well as a long-term survivor clinic that follows childhood survivors into adulthood.

Officials said the clinic has been trusted by the community, having treated over 11,000 patients and recorded almost 100,000 outpatient visits.

“I can’t stress enough how important it is that if your child verbalizes something that’s not normal for them to feel or experience a new ache or pain, to not just overlook that and to get them the medical attention they need,” Huerta said. “Because when it comes to cancer, minutes matter.

“The sooner you can start the treatment, the better it is.”

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